After I shared Morgan Scarboro’s post about ‘”dangerous dogs”—including her own, so-called “dangerous dog” (Milo has three legs)—on my Facebook page, one of the more impressively vituperative threads I’ve seen ensued. People who took issue with Morgan’s argument raised three concerns: the state has an interest in banning dangerous things; many of the people who buy “bully breed” type dangerous dogs are poor; their dogs attack children.
As recounted here, those points seem unrelated, but the thread soon coalesced into the following: (1) Poor (and irresponsible) people buy large, dangerous dogs; (2) their dogs bite children; (3) children ought to be protected. The descriptions of the dog owning poor were, ahem, interesting. There were lots of comments about “mouth breathing,” “tattoos,” and “too few teeth.” There was also quite a bit of “what about the children!” catastrophizing, despite the fact that my interlocutors were (and are) aware that the same argument is dragged out whenever one group of people wants to tell another group of people how to live.
At the same time as I shared Morgan’s post, a disabled friend was barred from entering a well-known (and LGBT-friendly) nightclub on the basis that the club “didn’t have disabled facilities” and that he therefore constituted “a fire hazard.” To demonstrate his mobility, he used his upper-body strength (considerable), to walk up the stairs on his hands. The incident culminated in the police being called. He was then taken away in the back of a paddy-wagon.
This is health and safety gone mad.
Of course, we all appreciate the need for health and safety laws. One of the reasons human life expectancy has increased across the developed world is because people no longer die on the job with monotonous regularity. However, coupled with this appreciation must be a recognition that it is not possible to make the world perfectly safe, and that attempts to do so often result in gross denial of agency.
Those who would save us from ourselves need to know that sometimes their arguments do amount to ‘poor people can’t have large pet dogs’ or “disabled people can’t go to nightclubs.” Yes, sometimes a poor person’s big dog will bite a child. Yes, sometimes a disabled person’s wheelchair will get stuck in the fire exit. And that’s okay. Because a world free of risk is not possible: should we, because human beings persist in having accidents in them, ban cars?
It seems silly to derive important legal principles from Tolkien, but Gandalf’s advice to Frodo is on point. Every time we step outside our house we encounter danger. A closely related Roman legal principle–now part of many systems–is volenti non fit iniuria. It means “for the willing, there is no injury.” It doesn’t mean that we should blindly ignore all risky behaviors (after all, the Romans developed the law of negligence in its modern form). What it means is that sometimes, we must let individuals decide, and live with the risk: both to them, and to the rest of us.